Monday 29 December 2008

Why Do We Go Grey?

June 10 - I originally wrote this article in Dec 08, but have since come across some interesting (recent) research and I feel that 'Why Do We Go Grey?' is a better title for it than the old one 'Grey Hair - A Diet Connection?'. Even in the old article I did suggest that there could be non-diet reasons for grey hair, and this research (see later) does suggest a few avenues for speculation! I've also made other minor updates.

PLEASE NOTE - I've done the rewrite quite quickly, and I'm AWARE the article isn't brilliantly structured. But I wanted to include the research on hydroxen peroxide build-up for you, and haven't had time to do a major rewrite (it's on the job list!).

I know many people would like to know if there's any way that the onset of grey (or gray even...) hair can be prevented or at least delayed, and self-interest certainly provided the motivation for research! At nearly 52, I only have a few grey hairs and they don't really show (yet). The pic of me on the blog is recent and I don't dye my hair. Can I put my lack of grey down to the raw food diet? Well, much as I'd like to, no, I can't (yet).

Firstly, if my diet did have anything to do with it, a 'sample size of one' isn't statistically significant. Secondly, I've only been raw for three and a half years. At 48 I wasn't grey either, and that was after a lifetime of cooked food. True, I hadn't eaten meat for 22 out of the 23 years preceding, but there are plenty of grey-haired vegetarians, and plenty of meat-eaters retaining their dark locks until quite late in life. And of course there's the genetic factor. Many believe that how early, and how much our hair turns grey is at least partly determined by our genes. My father didn't turn grey until his late 50s, so perhaps I have 'his hair'. (I heard of someone who took advantage of the fact that people in his family had always kept their dark hair well into old age by marketing a 'miracle cure' for greyness...).


According to Wikipedia (which is we all know is not necessarily to be relied on!), 'two genes appear to be responsible for the process of graying'. But, note the word 'appear'. That means they're not sure. After all, various behaviours can be passed down through the generations that affect our health, and these could have an effect on our hair (eg diet, the things we put on our hair, etc). Also, if there are genes that predispose to grey hair (it has been known for people to be born grey), why is that? Is it possible that something that happened in an individual's environment several generations back caused the gene to mutate?

The fur/hair/feathers of animals in the wild does not turn grey as they get older. The 'silver' on a 'silverback' ape is characteristic of males only, and at maturity rather than old age. Greyness is sometimes observed around the muzzles of domesticated dogs.

So could it be that it is unnatural behaviour on the part of the human being that turns our hair grey? What do we do differently from all other animals on the planet? Well...DIET is the big one! We follow a far from natural diet, and of course most people eat cooked food.

We also cut and shampoo our hair and many of us subject it to various 'treatments'. I can't see that cutting hair could make a difference, as if it did we'd expect men to grey earlier than long-haired women, and that doesn't appear to be the case (or is it?!). On the other hand, I've looked at pictures of the 'world's-longest-hair' people and they don't look grey...and the Nazarenes (Samson in the Bible), and the Sikhs, all instruct(ed)their followers not to cut their hair. The average adult probably cuts their hair every six weeks or so; to my knowledge, even sheep aren't shorn as frequently as this. Problem is that man is also the only human being where, if he doesn't cut his hair at all, he could trip over it! (Unless wrapped in a turban).

Not having known anyone who has never used shampoo in their entire life can't comment on that one, but I do wonder if a build-up of residue from the continued use of shampoo could have an effect.

It certainly seems plausible to me that if we constantly put chemicals on our hair (eg perm lotion, dye, bleach, gel) these chemicals could get into the hair follicles and have a cumulative and negative effect over time (many researchers over the years have found links between hair dyes and cancer, eg here.) People have gone grey since recorded history, but, there again, people have rubbed various concoctions into their hair for hundreds, if not thousands or more years. It could be that the sooner we start putting chemicals on our hair, and the more we do it, the sooner the greys appear. (And, what do we then? The response of many to this is to pile on more chemicals! )

And here's a link to that research I mentioned at the beginning of the article. In brief, it's saying that going grey is caused by a massive build up of hydrogen peroxide due to wear and tear of our hair follicles. (My italics.)

Natural Hygiene will ask what the cause of the 'wear and tear' might be. I'd offer the hypothesis that general 'wear and tear' might be caused by the things we do to our hair that wild animals generall don't. As well as cutting, shampooing, applying various chemicals (dyes,gels) as listed above, we generally fiddle about with our hair. We brush, we comb. We dry with heat. Surely our hair follicles will be subjected to a huge amount of stress compared with that of animals. Why do most people go grey at the temples first and at the back of the head last? My guess is that it's the hair follicles there that will see the most action. (Any 'hundred brushes a day' 70 year-olds with dark heads going to blow my theory?)


We do know what happens when hair turns grey. Hair changes colour when melanin ceases to be produced in the hair root and new hairs grow in without pigment. The reason melanin ceases to be produced is that the stem cells at the base of the hair follicles have died.

But that doesn't tell us why we go grey. To know why we go grey we'd need to know what caused the stem cells at the base of the hair follicles to die. We can't just say 'old age' as white hairs have been known to appear in childhood, and for many people these stem cells start to die in their twenties, which isn't 'old age' at all.

So why do these cells die? Tonya Zavasta, a raw food writer with a special interest in raw food and physical beauty, believes that: 'They die for the same reasons other cells do. Poor assimilation (of nutrients), hormonal imbalances, and toxic waste build-up in the system are contributing factors.' Makes sense to me. As does my own theory offered earlier, re 'wear and tear' of hair follicles.


Can stress result in greying hair? Stress can envervate the body, making it less able to eliminate toxins, so stress could well be a factor. It also depletes the body of vitamins (see later).

'It's in our genes?'

My hunch is that putting it all down to genetics is a cop-out. Grey hair may be normal; it may have been normal since the start of recorded history, but...we humans get up to so many things, don't we, that affect our health (and subsequently our physical appearances)? I believe the natural world around us can provide examples, give us clues, and I can't see anything in the other creatures that we share the earth with that persuades me that going grey is natural, or...healthy.



Too much of the bad stuff

More than one source claims that excessive intake of tea, coffee, nicotine, alcohol, meat, fried food and spicy food can lead to premature greying. Why? Because these sorts of diets result in nutritional deficiencies and can also, it is claimed, prevent moisture from reaching the follicles.

(Darrick Antell, MD, a plastic surgeon, studied pairs of twins who were genetically identical but had followed very different lifestyles in terms of diet, stress levels etc. He noted that, amongst many differences in their appearances, 'Twins who smoked also had more grey hair.')

Tonya Zavaste believes that 'greying hair is caused by the consumption of saturated fat and protein, as well as salt.'

These arguments will make sense to most people with any interest in health. We know that over-indulgence in the diet/lifestyle 'baddies' generally shows in people's looks as they get older, so it doesn't seem unlikely that grey hair could be a manifestation of this.

Lack of minerals in general


I've heard it claimed on raw food forums from time to time that high-fruit diets will result in premature greying because sugars 'leach minerals from the blood'. Well, there is evidence to suggest that mineral deficiencies may result in premature greying, BUT fruit will not be a problem! This is why: the body will only need to 'leach minerals' from its reserves if there are minerals lacking in the food ingested, ie if something is eaten that has been stripped of the vitamins and minerals that were with it in its natural state then the body will need to draw on its own reserves to metabolise it.

The simple sugars in whole fruits are delivered to us in a marvellous package full of the vitamins and minerals necessary for their metabolism. So the body will not need to draw on its reserves.

Processed sugars on the other hand (eg white sugar, demerara, maple syrup etc) have been removed from the plants of which they were a part of. They're fractionated, ie incomplete foods and, yes, they may well deplete the body of precious minerals.

(I have been on a high-fruit diet for six months now and I believe my hair has changed colour. It seems a little darker, although I'm willing to admit two poor summers could have something to do with it. My diet also includes raw sprouted grains and/or pulses and green leaves most days.)

Lack of copper, specifically

A drop in melanin production may be caused by a lack of the mineral copper. And grey hair has been linked to iron deficiency. (But, before reaching for supplements (don't!), note that the Cancer Prevention Trust says low iron has been linked with protection from cancer, and it could in fact be that it's lack of copper that's the real culprit in cases of 'iron deficiency', as copper is necessary for the body to absorb and metabolise iron.

Best vegan sources of copper are: pulses and grains (both raw and sprouted), nuts and seeds, leafy vegetables. Sea vegetables are also good sources of minerals generally. And Victoria Boutenko in 'Green for Life' supplies figures to show that organic produce tends to be far higher in minerals than non-organic.

Lack of PABA (a component of Vitamin B9)

PABA is 'para-aminobenzoic acid'. It's a component of folic acid (also known as Vitamin B9). Several sources say that this can prevent premature greying. Studies have shown that animals develop grey hair in the absence of this vitamin (ie where their diets have been manipulated by scientists), whereas colour is restored as soon as the animal is reintroduced to PABA!

Also, in times of stress, the body draws heavily on B vitamins, which can result in a deficiency.
Vegan foods rich in Vitamin B9 are: pulses and grains (raw and sprouted), nuts and seeds, leafy vegetables. Well, what a coincidence...(see copper sources above). And, as the B vitamins tend to work together in a group, go for foods rich in B-vitamins generally.


Wouldn't that be wonderful? Logically, for it to be able to do that, the dead cells that can't produce melanin anymore would have to be replaced with living cells that can. Can dead cells be replaced with living cells? I think in other parts of our bodies they can! So why not on our heads? The animal studies just referred to suggest this could happen. And some do claim that the raw food diet can reverse greying.

Health educator Ann Wigmore, who pioneered the taking of wheatgrass juice, started taking it at age 52 when she had grey hair. It is claimed that 25 years later her whole hair had turned its natural brown again. The implication is that the wheatgrass did it, but of course, if it is true that her hair did regain its original colour, it could have been her diet in general rather than one part of it. Here's a pic of Ann in her later years with what appears to be at least a mainly brown mop. (Those raw fooders who are not keen on the taste of wheatgrass may prefer to stick with their grey hair...)

I heard raw food coach Karen Knowler say that someone she knows swears his grey hair turned back to its original colour after drinking 'green smoothies' (green leaves blended, generally with fruit) daily. Victoria Boutenko says there are numerous accounts of people's natural hair colour returning as a result of consuming blended greens on a regular basis. She says that regular consumption of 'green smoothies' increases hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which increases the ability to digest food; the natural level of hydrochloric acid decreases as we age, resulting in nutritional deficiencies, and Victoria links this with the greying of hair.


Whether or not we believe that a grey head can revert back to its original colour, is there anything we can do that might keep the grey at bay?

Well, the first suggestion is my own, and the others are backed up by many health writers:

Don't put chemicals on the hair, as surely these could get into the hair follicles and damage cells. I'd also suggest that we avoid any treatment that dries the hair, as the follicles need moisture. (And in fact my father, and his father, both of whom went grey relatively late in life, used to use a lot of Brylcreem! My own hair has always tended to be 'oily' rather than 'dry'.)

Stop 'fiddling' with your hair in general (as explained at the start of the article). Stop brushing it, combing it, styling it, gelling it, heat-drying it, straightening it, using lotions, sprays, shampoos, stop pulling it into tight ponytails, stop pulling it on rollers for perms, stop dying it. Stop doing things that animals in the wild, who don't go grey,don't do to their hair/fur. OK - I know that's a bit of a tall about doing them less?

Don't smoke. Don't eat refined sugars. Smoking has been linked with grey hair and refined sugars will strip the body of minerals.

The less alcohol, caffeine, meat, salt and processed food generally, the younger the appearance.

Ensure the diet is rich in a) minerals and b) B vitamins. And, conveniently, the same foods tend to be great sources of both: pulses and grains (raw and sprouted), nuts and seeds, leafy green vegetables (and sea veg get a special mention for minerals). And buy organic. Fruit also contains B vitamins and minerals, so don't forget the fruit :-)


atwell said...

Very interesting article!

Debbie Took said...

Sheralle and Atwell, your comments are much appreciated - thank you!

Unknown said...

Very interesting article, Debbie!

Similarly ... I was reading this wondering if receding hairlines might ever return on a raw diet. But, either way (greying hair, receding hairlines, other signs of aging), it's kind of an important article particularly for raw foodists because, as a class, we tend to feel so damned good and young all the time! And, as such, it would be nice to look as young as you feel, right?

Of course, one could counter the whole argument with, "Well, this is a cosmetic issue, and we're so much more than our physical bodies." True... But, it would still be pretty cool to look the age you feel.

Debbie Took said...

Hi Jim

Many thanks for kind comment.

Someone once said that as raw foodists 'it's our duty to be gorgeous' (and that includes the guys!). Yes, it's good to have a healthy, youthful appearance as that all contributes to our being living testimonies to the power of raw food, and that will hopefully encourage others to find out more about it.

Receding hairlines...well, I am collecting data on that, but the file's quite slim at present. Of course it's complicated by the fact that it's something that (generally!) happens to men only. Jim, if you find anything on it, let me know!

Anne said...

Great article Debbie,
lovely photo too.
Wow, you look much younger than your biological age.
Love and peace XX♥

Debbie Took said...

Ah, thank you Anne. Unfortunately my feet and hands have the 'ten years older' look. But I hear Madonna has that problem...

netty062 said...

I found your blog because I did a search on why my greys are regaining it's original colour. I've been pulling greys for about 3 years (i'm 42) and recently noticed a trend of them changing back!!! I wanted to know what I'm doing. The only consistent things are 1) magnesium citrate 750 mg at bedtime 2) powdered greens in my morning smoothie! (more recently)

please email any comments to:

Debbie Took said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Netty.

I have heard people claim that 'green smoothies' daily have restored hair colour, so perhaps your green smoothie is having an effect! However, I'd suggest using fresh greens rather than green powder.

As a Natural Hygienist, I feel the magnesium supplement is more likely to be doing harm than good. For my reasons for saying this (and also information on green powders) please see my article on supplements here:

annette said...

Most people realize that Ann Wigmore colored her hair. Actually as you age the silver threads soften the aging process. I have been raw for years and still have silver gray hair and wouldn't change it for anything, I get compliments all teh time but I do keep it in an up to date style. Darker brown would look harsh just like Wigmore's did. anne

Debbie Took said...

Hi Annette

I don't think it's the case that 'most people realise' that Ann Wigmore coloured their hair. I'd be interested to know what proof you have that Ann was a liar. Maybe she was.

Anyway, whether or not she coloured her hair (I don't have the information from which to say whether she did or didn't), the point of the article is to explore why we might get grey hair. It's not 'having a go' at those with grey hair or saying that it's less beautiful than any other colour hair. :-) It's simply hair, but - grey. (I also know my own locks will turn grey eventually!)

I don't, however, agree with you that silver threads soften the ageing process, much as we'd all like to think so. Artificially-coloured hair - maybe, if it's obvious that the hair has been coloured.

animals2 said...

Hi, you mentioned grey hair on dogs... I have also known of grey hair on cats, horses and chimpanzees. I think this should be put into perspective when considering shampoo, meat, and cooked foods as causes for grey hair.

animals2 said...

You mentioned dogs get grey hair. Cats, horses and chimpanzees also get grey hair as they age. We should consider that when thinking grey hair comes from shampoo, meats, or cooked foods.

Debbie Took said...

But, I'll presume the cats and horses you've known were kept by humans. Was the chimpanzee you knew living in the wild? I wonder if any of these were living natural lives... Most domestic cats for example have a very unnatural diet.

Unknown said...

I find this article incredibly interesting. I started eating a raw diet about 3 months ago. Along with losing some cortisol weight (woohoo!), my hair is healthier than it has ever been! I still use hair products, natural when I can, and don't fuss with it much. The gray is not as noticeable as it used to be. Hoping it does not take 25 years, however. LOL What do you know about using bear fat on hair to return the pigment? I was told that several Indian tribes do this.

Unknown said...

I have been following mainly the raw food diet for 2 years because of blood cancer. I recently found a gray hair on my head but the root and first two inched of growth was dark brown my natural color. I stopped dying my hair about 4 months ago. I was messing up on my diet about 6 months ago and eating some processed foods but I recently got back on the wagon. I also eat wild caught fish 3 times a week for my blood cancer (hemoglobin). The majority of my diet is raw and I have no explanation why a single gray hair on my head started growing brown again. I am 35. So I guess it is possible for your hair to change from grey back to your natural color. One thing you didn't mention in your article,,,, is I have noticed my eyes got lighter and greener and my hair also turned from a very dark brown to a medium brown since I have been eating a mostly raw food diet.